I am proud of my degree, being the first in my family to earn one, however I learned quickly that having a degree in no way guarantees employment and after mailing away many amateurish resumes, attending over crowded job fairs, and learning one isn’t supposed to wear jeans to an interview (who knew?) by being berated from an underpaid, and obviously angry about it, HR staffer, I finally asked my father if he had any work for me at his machine shop. Lucky for me he did.
There is nothing wrong with being a mechanic or a machinist. It is honorable work which takes great skill and constant education. I just didn’t want to be either one. You have to buy your own tools. The conditions are usually difficult and oftentimes miserable. Extremely hot summers, unbearably cold winters, busted knuckles, smashed fingers, bruises, cuts, burns, eye injuries, and even broken bones are an accepted part of the job. So what does this have to do with writing? Well, aside from my desperately wishing I was not working as a mechanic for my dad and instead earning money as a successful writer (even though I never planned on being one), I learned a terribly important life lesson that must be applied when writing anything: KNOW your audience. That’s a biggie.
After a few weeks working with the other mechanics and machinists I had finally become tired of being treated like an outsider. A newbie. The boss’s son. I thought it was because my father owned the shop and that the other guys felt he was giving me special treatment (definitely not true). So I asked one of my coworkers if he felt he was being treated differently by my father because of nepotism.
He looked at me, laughed, then schooled me in a way no professor ever could. “John,” he said, “everyone here likes you but you’re hard to talk to. You keep using those one dollar words and we’re just fifty cents kind of people. What the hell is nepotism?” Forehead, meet the 2×4 of Knowledge. I was reminded, rather eloquently, that if you wish to communicate with written or spoken word, you must KNOW your audience. I did not realize I was continuing to converse with everyone as if still in an English Literature classroom. The other mechanics thought I was making fun of their lack of college education and were resentful. I was very much embarrassed, quickly changed my behavior, and soon was accepted as a fellow mechanic. I was clueless that I was being so ‘uppity’ in their eyes. I didn’t know my audience. I am NOT in any way saying I had to “dumb it down” to be understood. I am saying I needed to talk about things which interested them and were relatable to their lifestyles. Even now, thirty years later I still develop a slight southern accent when talking about cars or if I walk in a shop.
Now, when an idea for a possible story pops in my head the first thing I ask myself is who is my audience? Who am I trying to connect with? The answer is so very important as it affects the setting, the characters, dialog, sentence structure, vocabulary…just about everything. Once I have an audience in mind, I can begin to shape my idea into a story and I do this with dialog. My nebulous story at this point has neither a beginning or end, at this point it is still a “What if this happened?,” but I am certain I want someone to say a catchy “gotcha” sentence that is key to the story. At first, conversations occur between characters with names like UBG (Ultimate Bad Guy), RH (Reluctant Hero), WWG (Woman with a Gun), or DD (Dude who Dies). I don’t even know my characters well enough yet to even give out names but I know much of what I want them to say, or not say. My stories usually evolve from a single spoken sentence. If I had written “A Few Good Men,” my story would have started like this:
Lawyer “You are under oath, now tell the court the truth!”
UBG “You can’t handle the truth!”
If I had written “Jaws” I would have known one of my characters absolutely had to say, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and built my story around that.
I practically write a play first with scribbled notes elsewhere on the page suggesting scenery.
The next thing I begin to work on is shaping my characters. The importance of this is another ‘life lesson’ revealed by a friend and coworker when I worked at a book store, aged about 22. I asked my friend to beta read a short story I had recently finished. She did and said that the characters were one dimensional, boring, and ruin the story. The plot revolved around an Alzheimer patient and a young girl. My friend asked if I knew anyone suffering from the disease. I only knew of my grandfather.
In her own way she was telling me I needed to be able to empathize with my characters and to do that, I needed to do the same with real people. That, or I needed to learn to fake it. I am grateful for her insight because now, I strongly feel that empathy is the core of character development and since stories are driven by the character, you must KNOW your characters as though they are family. Actually, closer than family. You are a god and have birthed these beings. You are omniscient. You must know where the character is from, how he, she, or it talks, walks, speaks, would react to being given a baby to hold, his, her, or its preferred music…absolutely everything. As the author you need to know each character inside and out. You must know things that will not even make it onto the page because it will still give the character a personality in your head that will be visible on the page. Once that character comes alive, you’ll be able to say to yourself while working on a scene, “Wait. She never would say that. In fact, she never would get herself into a situation where she would need to say something like that.” When I am that familiar with my character it is easy to see when my story has gone awry and needs an edit. I may need to change the dialog or the setting.
Speaking of setting, this comes to me as I merge the plot with the dialog. It gets changed a lot as my writing progresses. I continuously change things around to further develop the characters or to place them in an awkward position to see what they’ll do. I make my settings so they are familiar to the reader, enough so the reader is right there with the characters. However, if my describing a setting too much becomes distracting, it is time to hit the delete key. When reading Steinbeck I would skip paragraphs because he described just about everything in order to set the scene. Before anyone would speak he would describe the lamp, the table, the bed sheets, the curtains, the temperature, the smells, the floor, the paint…I was like, “Come on, get out of the room, will ya!” Don’t get me wrong, Steinbeck’s descriptions are poetic and worth reading, but I feel he loses the reader’s connection to the characters by having too much description in a scene. Am I A.D.D.? Yes. Does he spend too much time setting up a scene, yes. Is he studied by millions and I am not, yes. But I want my reader to be guided to a place that is described just enough to engage his or her imagination and make the scene his or her own. Steinbeck wanted there to be no illusions about what his characters are encountering. I want my readers to fill in any perceived blanks with his or her own memories and experiences thus making the story more personal.
Now, what makes a story great? Delicious vocabulary. Sentences that grab the reader’s attention and won’t let go. (Take the opening of A Christmas Carol for example: “Marley was dead.” BAM! The title suggests a story about Christmas, bringing to mind a cheerful time and BAM, Dickens opens the story with the image of a corpse. Damn, that’s good.) Characters to love and hate. Intriguing settings. A good sub-plot. A great plot that immerses the reader so deeply a synergy is created. The Book Thief is a great example of that. Dialog that is subtle or powerful as needed. Tension that bubbles under the surface through things left unsaid, body language, inappropriate gifts, or outright insults. When an author can inject some humanity, through the correct amount of description and all of the things written above, I feel the writing is great and the author a great writer.
Tom Clancy once opined “If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Neil Gaiman said in a speech, (I’m paraphrasing) “Make good art. No matter what happens to you make good art. Cat dies? Make good art. Wife or husband leaves you, make good art.” I think I am somewhere in between these extremes. I cannot force myself to sit every day and crank out one or two pages like Tom and I certainly cannot guarantee when I actually feel like writing I’ll make good art like Neil. When I was an assistant manager at a book store, John Grisham once advised me, while at a book signing, to write but do so with a direction in mind. I believe I’ll go with that and work Clancy and Gaiman in when I can.